Comment 1
From Milling About to Deadlock: When hierarchies go topless

Elands with locked horns
Credits: Wikipedia

The idea of the social contract is often mentioned and seldom understood. Politicians use that term but nobody seems to know what they really mean by it. 17th century thinkers spoke as though there were actual conversations or consultations in which these matters were determined. In reality these matters must have taken place over a long time and in various contexts.
I will try to investigate what may have happened by imagining a simple case of contract negotiation.

Imagine that a ship sank and a group of orphans became lost on an island someplace. They all spoke the same language but there was no older person to lead them. They gathered fruit and bird eggs to eat. Some kids wanted to rob and eat the bird eggs and fruit the other kids had gathered. The kids who had their food taken from them would naturally be angry about that. After a while the kids who regularly lost food might band together to protect each other. It might happen that separate groups came into being and sometimes they might not agree. Gang fights might occur. Some child with vision, some child who could comprehend the whole situation, might then emerge to become a leader of all of them. I think it usually happens in an informal group that a person will emerge as the one whom almost everybody agrees has the best sense. He or she doesn't have to be the strongest or even the most intelligent, just the one whom most people think is pretty fair. That person's leadership would depend heavily on trust.

A small group like this could evolve in several different ways. Perhaps the leader would be a very strong person who could force people to do what he or she wanted. That would not work very well in the long run because some of the people would take advantage of being friends with the leader and other people would lose out. The people that lost out wouldn't be very loyal to the group. Then the leader would only be the leader of his or her clique and there would be a second group that would become opposed to the leader. The second group would find its own leader and then there would be a chance for a sort of primitive war. The two groups might separate, but then each group would be weaker than the original group that contained all of the people.

In trusting someone else with authority, one must believe that one's one interests and those of one's group will be respected. A constitution will give a legal basis for this trust by protecting the interests of minorities and preventing a dictatorship of the majority.

So here is a very important principle to mark out: For peace and cooperation there needs to be someone who is not the leader of just one part of the society. If there are two or more factions in a group and each faction has a leader, then that is effectively a split society. Whenever there is conflict there will be no authority to solve the conflict. There will be nobody in the middle to mediate any conflict. We can often see this kind of fight brewing up in a modern society. It may be that a large factory has a workforce that is organized into a union. The factory owner says, "I'll give you workers 1/2 an ounce of silver for every hour that you work." The workers say, "That's not enough. We want 3/4 of an ounce." Then the workers go on strike, and the factory boss hires thugs to come in and break up the strike. To avoid this kind of fight there needs to be a third party who is neither a factory boss nor a worker, and that person (or that part of the government) needs to have authority to come in and tell everybody what to do.

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Suppose that the third party, the arbitrator in this situation, says workers should get 5/8 of an ounce of silver per hour. The factory owner is unhappy and he says, "I'll get you fired!" The workers are  unhappy and the union says. "We'll work against your superior in the next election, and you'll get fired!" But if the arbitrator has been open and clear he may be okay in this situation. He will say, "I looked at the accounts of the factory, and if they gave you workers 3/4 of an ounce, then they couldn't afford to buy enough raw materials to keep all of you at work. On the other hand, if the factory only gives you 1/2 an ounce of silver that will let the boss walk off with a tremendous amount of money that he doesn't really deserve." When the election starts there are plenty of other people who don't stand on the side of the factory owner and don't stand on the side of the workers, and they can see that the arbitrators have been fair. So in a society that keeps everything open and aboveboard, voters will generally be able to figure things out correctly and keep the arbitrator in his job.

I'm working with a really simple society here. I'm making a very simple model society. However, the principle exhibited here is an important one: Control should pass down from the head of state to something like a labor ministry and then to somebody who does the arbitrating. One kind of feedback goes back up the chain of command. The arbitrator tells the labor ministry, "I succeeded in doing the job you gave me. Mission accomplished." The labor ministry tells the head of state, "Everything is working all right with labor affairs these days." And the head of state feels that he doesn't have anything to worry about with regard to labor affairs. It is important to note that the head of state does not need to do much more than to set the general goal of keeping labor relations in good shape. It can be up to subordinates to determine exactly how to achieve those goals.

It isn't only that signals go down and back up the chain of command, however; feedback from the general public also goes to each level of that chain of command from people in the community. They may say that the laborers aren't being treated fairly, They may complain that the labor ministry is not doing its job well enough, or they may complain that the head of state is not working the way he should. This kind of feedback makes the arbitrator look more closely at what has been done, it may prompt the labor ministry to check on what the arbitrators have done, and it may warn the leader of the country that something is going wrong and he had better fix it before election time.

Once many people are involved things can get complicated. The emperors of China discovered that what they ordered didn't always get done, and they might not find out. In a bureaucracy that had several levels, each time the emperor's order went down a rung it could change because each level of administration had to figure out how to implement the emperor's directives. Because officials had their own subjective take on things, the implementation process could slant things away from what the emperor would have wanted. Then when the orders went out among the people and produced results in the real world, news of what was accomplished needed to go back up the chain of command. At each level information from lower levels would be aggregated and the results might be sweetened to make the official look better. So by the time a report reached the emperor it might not be accurate enough to be truly useful.

When the emperors of China finally twigged to this kind of thing going on, they invented a new kind of official called a censor. The job of a censor was to go out into the countryside to find what was really going on. If he found that anything was going wrong he could get the concerned officials in a lot of trouble.

In a free society this kind of investigation is often performed by the press. Investigative reporting can reveal to the administration what its subordinate officials are doing, and it also reveals hidden misbehavior to the voters. So freedom of the press is a strong guard against tyrannical government.

Mao Zedong said, "Power comes from the barrel of a gun." Ultimately, that is the justification for the rule of the Communist Party over China. If asked, "What right do you have to rule over the people of China?" the only answer is, "We rule because we have the guns and other tools of compulsion." While such a government may be nervously aware of the power of the masses, it will have virtually no reason at all to be protective of the rights of minorities.

At the other extreme of government would be a formless direct democracy, a society in which every decision would be reached by majority vote. How would you feel if disposal of your house, your spouse, your children, your possessions, etc. were all subject to the whims of public opinion? They could all be taken away from you because the majority of people in your community wanted to do something with them.

What happens if many people in a country like China decide that they did not give the government the authority to rule over them and so they work to take that authority away? There are no effective feedback mechanisms, so there is no established way to curb government excesses by vote, petition, etc. Their authority coming out of the barrel of a gun, the only way to change the situation is to use some kind of force to oppose them. Gandhi used force to oppose the British Raj, but it was not the violent kind of force dependent on weapons. There may be a hundred modalities to produce change in a state like China, but they will go beyond the kind of feedback that can be ignored.

When two or more power groups have no superior to mediate among them and decide what route to take, societies may deadlock or fission. The United States is currently in this situation. There are several power centers that crowd around the missing apex position: the Supreme Court, the President, two major political parties of nearly equal strength, and the Armed Forces. Theoretically, the Armed Forces are subordinate to the President, but the same strategic separation that acts against their becoming the instrument of a president in domestic affairs also makes them immune from patronage debts to the president. The last general to challenge the authority of the Commander in Chief was Douglas MacArthur. He received no effective support in his efforts to control foreign policy. However, it is still conceivable that in some time of intense dysfunction of government the Armed Forces might perform a coup. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no "power of the gun" to ensure his dominance. So it is possible that an army or a battalion might perform a coup. Alternately, a president might use his power as Commander in Chief to assume autocratic power. The probability of any of these developments is very low under any range of conditions thus far experienced.

The current standoff between the two major political parties, however, is a serious dysfunction. There is no constitutional preparation for handling this kind of lock-up of the mechanisms of government.* There is no officer of government who stands above them and is empowered to force a compromise. The Founders of the Republic evidently expected that no faction would endanger the nation in pursuit of its own interests. They were wrong.

When a country is split among several unconnected hierarchies of control that have no superior controller, it is not clear how to depict the organization of the country. It is not even quite clear what makes this complex combination of humans capable of functioning as a nation. It is conceivable that all the members of one ethnicity, religion, or other group held together by some non-essential trait would form a component of the nation, have its own system of social controllers, etc. Another component of the same country might be located in a single region. If each of these components behaved in most ways like a state, then an intractable problem would arise whenever two or more of these components came into conflict. The same general situation prevails in the world as a whole, many nations jostling with each other and lacking any superior organizational unit to mediate among them. It is clear why there is still no world government: The nations of the world are unwilling to give up sovereignty.

Trust is hard won and easily lost. In a primitive tribal society the position of chief may not be hereditary. It must in any case depend on trust. An individual with aspirations will never become a so-called "medicine man" or shaman unless he or she wins the trust of the community. Similarly, in the world community it would be necessary for some group of individuals to somehow set aside their individual national identities and begin to function as independent executives or mediators over all nations. Similarly, in situations wherein there are two or more strongly opposed power groups it will be difficult for a member of any one of them to become the leader of all.

* In the Senate of the United States, a tie vote can be broken by the president of the senate. However, in the House of Representatives an impasse cannot be broken by the Speaker of the House.

Last revised 9 January 2016